Turmoil is nothing new to folks in agriculture. Whether it involves planting a crop or breeding a sow, you roll the dice daily. There’s never a guarantee that either will produce well.

It’s more a matter of degree. Admittedly this year’s Midwest floods, combined with ethanol’s corn demand, raised the economic turmoil that you face to a whole new level. Certainly losses of $20, $30, $40 or more per head can be classified as serious turmoil. But then again, mortality rates of 20 percent or 30 percent due to porcine circovirus associated disease or other ailments aren’t exactly a walk in the park.

This turmoil tolerance is one of the traits that the public is missing in terms of understanding you. That’s not to say these aren’t stressful times for you; they certainly are, and lack of historical guidance for such uncharted territory is sure to create some sleepless nights.

As other businesses are facing tough economic choices, you’ve been there, done that. At least that’s what a survey conducted this summer illustrates. Through Pork magazine’s Pork Perspectives Panel, 103 participants shared some of their actions and intentions as they face profitability challenges, specifically as they relate to human capital. Here’s some of what they said.

First, you already run your businesses lean and mean, so there are not a lot of notches to tighten in that belt. Only 20 percent said they’ve reduced employee numbers. After all, the hogs still need to be fed. About 30 percent did say they will be less aggressive in filling vacant positions. Cutting back on work hours, reassigning duties to more efficiently apply workers’ time and skills, and employing more part-time workers and high school students are options used to get the tasks done and limit costs. Only 13 percent said they will reduce starting wages or benefits for new employees.

Of particular interest is the priority that respondents place on communicating with their workforce — it would make a human resource specialist proud. For example, asked about how to keep employee morale up during tough financial periods, respondents said:

Some of the specific comments were: “We try to conduct meetings to keep all employees informed and help them understand the situation.” Also, “We try to make comparisons to situations that employees can relate to and understand.”

Respondents made it clear that productivity is a priority regardless of market price or input costs. Also, keeping a lid on costs is a team effort, and about 20 percent said they offer incentives or rewards for employees’ money-saving ideas. Most bring their employees into the conversation, and here’s how they convey the importance of reducing costs and improving efficiencies.

  • Provide more incentives for ideas that reduce costs/eliminate waste – 18%
  • Have meetings to discuss potential cost-cutting options – 46%
  • Give specific examples of how to reduce waste – 65%
  • Provide additional training on ways to reduce waste/improve efficiency – 40%
  • Monitor procedures more closely for waste or inefficiencies – 64%
  • Other – 9%

Switching out “more expensive” products with “less expensive” alternatives was the most cited option producers are using to limit costs. Specifically, being more judicious about using certain feed ingredients and medications drew the largest number of responses.

Owners are taking a more hands-on approach: 67 percent said they do more barn walk-throughs today to monitor such things as feeder adjustments. Fifty-five percent also said they spend more time analyzing feed use, ensuring the right diets get to the right pigs and that diets are switched in a timely manner. 

To the producers’ credit, they are not making employees pay the price. Only 27 percent said they’ve reduced employee parties, events or sports teams. And they’re standing by their communities. Only 17 percent said they’ve cut back on volunteer time for community service, fund raisers and other sponsorships.

Now, things may have changed some since the survey was taken, and some of the responses may be different today. But the take-home messages are that pork production owners understand that employees are a valuable cog in the production wheel, that communication is key and, while you can be hands-on, you also need to let team members participate in identifying and implementing solutions. You’ve increasingly made those steps part of your business routine.